If You Won the Lottery, Would You Be the Same Person?

I recently interviewed Jeffrey Blitz, the director of the award-winning documentary Spellbound, among other films, about his new documentary. The new film, called "Lucky," debuts tonight on HBO. It's about the lottery and what happens to people when they win. Here's an excerpt from the interview:

You have one subject who had his siblings put a hit out on him (unsuccessful, I should note). Were there any other depths of human depravity this subject exposed that surprised you?

That was a winner named Buddy who, indeed, had his siblings try to kill him. Once was through a hit man. Buddy also told us that the bolts were taken out of his car and that he was given arsenic twice. And while this gives the movie some really wretched moments, I tried hard to not make a film that just fed into an audience's built-in sense of resentment toward people who had won money they didn't deserve.

That felt too easy and also would have allowed a viewer to miss out on what I felt were the more interesting results: that normal people -- people whose siblings don't own a bottle of arsenic -- end up confronting a gigantic loss of self. That was true of all our winners, across all spectrums, and it's certainly not something that anyone thinks about when they play.

The biggest threat doesn't come from a jealous brother but from suddenly having to confront the loss of all ambition, of struggle and limitation and collective action. For most of these people, their lives as they knew them just ended, and it didn't take a hit man to do that.

A Marxist might say that shows we've all internalized our oppression -- once we're not toiling for The Man, we don't know who we are anymore.

I don't mean it in specifically economic terms, actually. It's not just "toiling for The Man" that defines us but everything tangible and limited in how we live: our desires and ambitions that are defined by our neighborhood, by our friends, our own inner sense of the trajectory of our lives. You can stop working, and many of these things remain basically unchanged.

As one winner in the movie explains, before she won she didn't realize how many conversations with her friends involved money. People needing to pay car insurance, wanting to send their kid to college, and worries about that. All of a sudden, she doesn't have those concerns at all anymore but to continue her friendships she has to "pretend" she has those concerns. We also talk to her friends who have been left behind and see how they wrestle with their own jealousy.

Read the whole interview here. "Lucky" will be on HBO tonight at 9 p.m.

-- Paul Waldman

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